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Tom Waits’ traveling carnival of lurid cynicism, bone-hard sentiment, and cackling grotesquerie will be stopping for an extra week in your town, and you bet the double bill means the marks pay twice—no decent carny passes up a chance to familiarize himself with an extra dollar. Which isn’t to say that Waits is any kind of huckster—he’s a meticulous arranger posing as the ringmaster for all things painfully vivid and rivetingly ugly, such as love and not being self-deluded—just that avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson keeps him hopping.
Alice, songs from Waits’ 1992 collaboration with Wilson on his opera about Lewis Carroll’s historical, fictional, and symbolic relationship with his underage subject, and Blood Money, from Wilson’s 2000 staging of Georg Buchner’s play Woyzeck, share a release date. Unsurprisingly, they cover much of the same ground. And neither recording, taken on its own, illuminates either narrative.
Whatever Wilson has done with Paul Schmidt’s script for Alice in Part II of a staged trilogy (The Black Rider, co-written by William S. Burroughs, was the first; Time Rocker, based on H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the third) is very likely far removed from Carroll’s sensibility but probably not off his point. Whereas the theatrical production is said to have offered a mirrored and distorted experience of both Carroll with his fictional Alice and the Rev. Charles Dodgson with his photographic model Alice Liddell, the Tom Waits album is yet another thing, unconnected to the letter of this odd, one-sided love story but not to its spirit. Liddell, whom the playful puzzle-master Dodgson loved, was reportedly undamaged by their mathematic and photographic games; the Alice who fell through Carroll’s rabbit hole learned much about illusion and mystery by the time she awoke from her summer slumber. Around both stories Waits loosely weaves a collection of tender songs about remembrance, separation, and circus freaks.
Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, is cited as co-writer for every track—which is a blessing. Since she boarded Waits’ ghost trolley, his juice has revived to an unprecedented degree—unprecedented because determinedly quirky American originals tend to ossify, not flex, as they age; Randy Newman is the most relevant case in point.
This acoustic recording covers much vintage Waits territory, but with more delicacy in the brass—which pauses to frame a moment of sadness or beauty and pulls away from the gravelly insistence of the vocals—and less boho grit. A chomping, grinding cabaret march, “Kommienezuspadt” is a genetic match for anything by Kurt Weill at his most misanthropic, and “Table Top Joe,” about a circus pianist “born without a body,” tells his story with the languid good humor of Louis Armstrong and suitably genial accompaniment. But Alice is mostly love songs, or shadows of love songs, hinging their emotions to images of nature that are notably absent from Carroll’s repertoire. The subject of “Alice” is connected to water in various states; the ice rink and drink-chilling cubes of this first song melt into a warm spring on the last, “Barcarolle,” when “The grass will all grow back” and “The girls all knit in the shade/Before the baby is made.” Elsewhere, floods and oceans, moons, flowers, trees and leaves shiver, flow, and dwindle in some of the gentlest Tin Pan Alley musings Waits has ever recorded.
Digging deeply into the skewed boom-chick groove of a drunken New Orleans funeral band, Blood Money shakes its fist at God’s supposed benevolence and tips its hat to Satan’s ingenuity, presumably because the latter is more abundantly in evidence. Here, Weill informs every note but proscribes nothing—the Eastern European milieu of the grim soldier’s tragedy is Waits’ springboard for the homegrown version of certain disappointment in which he so ably traffics. “Misery’s the river of the world,” he growls repeatedly in the opening track of the same title, finally chortling “Everybody row!” as the song fades to black. He modulates his expressive rumble, here reserved for the gentler tracks, into effortful bursts, forcing out air across the rubble in sloppy, angry phrases on the oompah-driven “Starving in the Belly of a Whale,” “Everything Goes to Hell,” and “God’s Away on Business.” A calliope contributes to the album’s woozy atmosphere—this is an extremely disorienting record—but despite the bells, gongs, and circus borrowings, Waits gets plenty of menacing mileage out of guitars, bass, some standard brass, and the copious use of marimba.
The decadent music-hall trappings and garish subject matter hit the ear so soundly that Waits’ songwriting gifts appear, at first listen, to be merely keeping up with the mad parade. But those gifts have grown more solid and more complex over time, even as the pop insouciance that served Waits so well on his legendary early albums, such as Swordfishtrombone, has dissipated. Perhaps composing for the stage has expanded his narrative repertoire; the dazzlingly vivid lyric structures shift kaleidoscopically, from a listing of bitter epigrams (“God’s Away on Business”) to a roundup of romantic metaphors (“All the World Is Green”) to a direction of rueful and keen-eyed observations toward a nameless “you” on “The Part You Throw Away.”
A couple of instrumentals vary the pace—the zippy “Knife Chase,” which implies a lot of bad news with silent-film piano and horns that seem alert for a signal to cheese it in a hurry, and the self-explanatory “Calliope”—and the record is sugared with lopsided love songs, none of which are as lyrically idiosyncratic as the instrumentation promises. Leonard Cohen could cover “Another Man’s Vine” or the not-comforting “Lullaby,” and nobody would blink. Like Alice, Blood Money doesn’t imply any narrative beyond its references to itself—that is to say, to the Waits oeuvre in which it comfortably nestles. The record stands as one truth about desire and disappointment, if not every truth, and if a list of Waits’ influences might cast him as willfully out of time and self-marginalizing, his music is not. It harvests all the dirt and glitter of American musical styles to express values and emotions as timeless as the droop of a tired trombone as dawn shuts the joint down. CP